Death of a
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For Americans, the first week of July marks a celebration of the independence of
their country. For Zimbabweans, Monday, July 5, 1999 heralded a different kind of celebration: one to
mark the death of Joshua Nkomo, one of the leaders of Zimbabwe's long and bloody struggle for
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On Sunday, the 4th, in the capital city of Harare, a crowd of 6000 gathered at the Harare
International Airport to greet Nkomo's wife, Joanna. Family members and friends joined a contingent of
government officials aboard the special Air Zimbabwe flight from Bulawayo, in accompanying Nkomo's
body. The waiting crowd had spontaneously broken into song, ululations, and toyi-toying (group jumping
and dancing), at times pushing through the police line and occupying the runway.
Later in the day a special mass was held in the Roman Catholic cathedral for Nkomo, who earlier this
year, at the age of 82, was baptized in the Catholic faith. Nkomo died on Thursday, July 1, in the
early hours of the morning after struggling with his final battle, cancer.
Monday morning, the 5th, Nkomo's body, borne atop a gun carriage, was ushered through the
throngs of mourners to the National Heroes' Acre where he would be buried. The
monument is home to the graves of the leaders who died during Zimbabwe's liberation struggle in the
1970s, which culminated in the country's independence in 1980. Officials from Zambia, Tanzania,
Malawi, Nigeria, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, and Great Britain gathered with thousands of
Zimbabweans to listen to speeches and mourn the death of Nkomo. He was buried with full military
Around 2pm on the day of the celebration, I picked up a few newspapers and boarded a minibus headed
for the site. The vehicle passed hundreds of other cars, vans and pedestrians heading
in the same direction. Faces were somber and people, dressed in their best clothes, walked slowly back
and forth. I alighted, and as I walked up the hill towards the Obelisk, a landmark of Heroes' Acre,
passers-by greeted me with "Hi, how are you?" and the occasional
"I love you."
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At this late hour, most of the onlookers were leaving but as I reached the entrance, I encountered
the regally dressed Howard Mallen and his assistant, Rebecca Chakanyuka, in front of a wall depicting
the soldiers' struggle for independence. Mr. Mallen, who exclaimed, "You're late--you
missed all the speeches!" had given a talk during the ceremony and showed me the red
program that had Nkomo's biography, as well as pictures of his political career which had spanned the
last forty-two years of his life.
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A famous story recounted in The Herald talks about Nkomo's powers of
reconciliation and leadership during the initial unrest of the 1950's. In 1956, during his presidency
of the African National Congress, Nkomo met with Youth Wing leaders to talk about a bus strike in
response to the increase in fares from three to four pence. In Salisbury, people were striking, but no
action was being taken in Bulawayo, the country's second largest city. Nkomo wanted
action to be taken on a national level, not just on a regional level.
Distrust and open hostilities broke out amongst two competing factions, Shona and
Ndebele. Nkomo encouraged all to speak, and after a pause, asked his own question of the group,
"Who was the commander when the battle of Shangan was won during the first Chimurenga?"
During the first Chimurenga, Shona and Ndebele agreed to cooperate against the British. While no one
spoke out the answer to Nkomo's question that day, they all knew the answer: the commander was
Mashayamombe, a Shona serving with an Ndebele regiment. "If our forefathers had fought alongside
each other against the white settler, what would prevent us from working together against the common
enemy? We are one and the same people," Nkomo, the peacemaker, told the group. His message to the
young leaders: only through unity could they prevail.
At the National Heroes' Acre, stairs lead up from the statue of the soldiers to a grouping of tombs
that lie in successive levels of semi-circles around the Obelisk at the top. At the second level, I
stopped to pay my respects to the freshly dug tomb where Nkomo's body had been laid to rest.
Mourners brought up flowers and laid them on the neighboring tomb as workers
scattered the first wheelbarrowfuls of earth into Nkomo's grave. Nearby, a proud bird, a replica of
the giant soapstone birds found in Great Zimbabwe, rested above an opposite wall with depictions of
the conflict. In the distance I could see the shimmering buildings of downtown Harare, the city's
independence a monument to the integrity and leadership of Joshua Nkomo.
From the minibus, on my way back to the hostel where we were staying, I noticed flags
flying at half-mast, including a Union Jack at the British Council. Most shops and businesses
were closed as the nation grieved, and many people had stayed at home to watch the ceremony televised
live by the Zimbabwean Broadcast Company. Some Ndebele in Bulawayo had whispered that Nkomo's death
would lead to more tribal conflicts. On the eve of Nkomo's burial, one can only wait
and see what the future brings for the majority Shona party and the minority Ndebele party. Will the
loss be too much for this new nation's stability? Will partisan fighting lead to problems similar to
those faced here, in the United States? Or will a new figure emerge to take the place of Nkomo?
Only the future can say.
Joshua Nkomo and the
Today in Zimbabwe some mourn and some rejoice the death of Joshua Nkomo, a leader of the liberation
struggle. The whole day on television there were specials about the history of Zimbabwe, as well as
songs, dancing, and tributes to the man whom some called "the King of
Matabeleland." The Zimbabwean national anthem, Ngaikomborerwe Nyika Yezimbabwe,
Blessed Be the Land of Zimbabwe, played constantly here in Bulawayo, as well as imbube
pieces, a blend of Ndebele and English, by the a cappella group Black Umfolosi. Rachel and Dumy, who
work at our hostel, both watched intently and said it was a real shame, and "people in town won't
be happy today -- everyone will walk around with their heads down." But the white owner, David,
came in and raised his hands in the air, saying, "Finally, the opposition leader is
In Harare (then Salisbury), in 1955, some nationalist leaders, dissatisfied with the growing
inequality between black Africans and white settlers (the descendants of Cecil Rhodes' Pioneer Column), formed the City Youth League, which gradually became a new organization called the African
National Congress (ANC). Of prime interest in everyone's minds was the Land Husbandry Act of 1951,
which had taken land away from Africans and given it to the minority whites. Elected president of the
group, young Joshua Nkomo surprised the settler government by calling for majority
rule. Banned in 1959, the ANC changed names and operated as a new National Democratic Party
(NDP), retaliating with a series of demonstrations, strikes, and sabotage, called Zhii, or vengeful
annihilation of the enemy.
In 1961, while Nkomo was out of the country, the government banned the NDP. In response,
nationalists created yet another group, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), a primarily
Ndebele organization. Joshua Nkomo again led this group, and was again banned by Sir Edgar Whitehead.
The Rhodesian Front Party's Winston Field was elected in 1962, and he instituted a series of crushing
laws, outlawing black assemblies and political debates, and passing a mandatory death sentence
for arson. Nkomo thought about fleeing to Mozambique to head up a government in exile, and
around this time disagreements between Nkomo and Robert Mugabe (the current Zimbabwean head of state)
led to Mugabe's disgusted resignation. Mugabe went on to form the Zimbabwe African National Union
(ZANU), a primarily Shona group. Nkomo pressed on with the struggle as well, and most of the
ZANU and ZAPU party leaders continued to be banned or imprisoned for their nationalistic
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Mounting tensions eventually led to civil war. (Less than a century earlier, in 1896, the Ndebele
and Shona had joined to fight the British South Africa Company in the First Chimurenga, the "War
of Liberation." Squashed in 1897, one of the movement's spiritualist leaders had prophesied,
"My bones will rise again," in a Second Chimurenga). This Second "War
of Liberation" began on April 28th, 1966, now known as Chimurenga Day, with a day-long skirmish
between Rhodesian Front soldiers and police against freedom fighters in the city of Chinhoyi:
all died except one. In the years that followed, fortified by ZANU training camps in
Mozambique and ZAPU bases in Zambia and Tanzania, armed conflict continued, with young women and men
trained and fighting as scouts, messengers, spies, and soldiers.
Under the aegis of the Patriotic Front, Mugabe's ZANU and Nkomo's ZAPU managed to bring Ian Smith's
white government to its knees. On March 4th, 1980, in a carefully monitored election, Mugabe and ZANU
won a majority of seats available to Blacks in the new parliament, while Nkomo and ZAPU won 20.
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In town, I asked Evelyn High School students Tryphine, Nancy, Neoleen, and Dorothy, all 15 and in
Form 3, if they discussed Nkomo at all in school today. Neoleen said that they just talked about it a
little. "Anyway, he was very old. He celebrated his birthday during his illness."
Nkomo represents the past, a part of history almost unknown to this younger
generation. What happens in the future is up to youth like these students.
The students of Evelyn High School would like to exchange letters with you:
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